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The Libation Bearers | Context

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The Oresteia Legend

The Libation Bearers is the second play in Aeschylus's Oresteia cycle, a trilogy, or set of three plays, telling the story of a cursed Greek royal family, the House of Atreus. Members of the House of Atreus are sometimes called the Atreidae. The cycle is named after Orestes, a young man from Argos, Greece, who comes of age as The Libation Bearers begins and takes on the responsibility of saving the Atreus family.

Throughout the trilogy the Greek gods dictate, reward, and punish human behavior. The gods' influence creates tension between the fates of humans (the destiny the gods design for them, which they are unable to change), and their free will and ability to choose between right and wrong. This tension is central to The Libation Bearers because under the gods' influence, Orestes murders his mother.

The curse on the House of Atreus originates before the plays take place. A conflict arose between brothers Atreus and Thyestes, the fathers, respectively, of trilogy characters Agamemnon and Aegisthus. Atreus murdered two of Thyestes's sons and served their bodies to Thyestes for food. This is the crime known as the protarchos ate or the primary act of ruin—the crime kicking off the tragic cycle and leading the family to ruin. Once Thyestes realized the trick, he called down a curse on the family, condemning its members to betray and kill one another.

The first play in the Oresteia cycle, Agamemnon, dramatizes the murder of Orestes's father, the king and war general Agamemnon, after he returns victorious from the Trojan War. Orestes's mother, Clytaemnestra, murders Agamemnon to consolidate power with her lover, Aegisthus. She's also avenging her daughter, Iphigeneia, killed by Agamemnon as a war sacrifice. Orestes is in exile and does not appear on stage during Agamemnon, but the Chorus hints he will return to avenge his father's death. Agamemnon establishes ideas and images uniting the trilogy, including the cycle of "blood for blood" or vengeance through retributive killing.

The Libation Bearers centers around Orestes's return to the city of his birth and his murder of Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus. Orestes is helped by his sister Electra, who

was absent from the first play and now lives a restricted, servant-like life in the royal palace. Although Orestes acknowledges the gravity of killing his mother, he wants to avenge his father, and the god Apollo commands him to complete the act under threat of punishment. But the vengeful cycle's not over. As The Libation Bearers ends, Orestes is pursued by the Furies, goddesses of the underworld (chthonic or Earth goddesses) who seek justice for Clytaemnestra.

Eumenides takes place immediately after The Libation Bearers ends. Orestes seeks Apollo's mercy and protection, but the Furies continue to chase him. The goddess Athena, with the help of a court of Athenians, uses Orestes's case to end the cycle of bloodshed and set up a democratic model for justice. Aeschylus ties the action of the Oresteia into larger developments in civilization, such as the shift from tribal vengeance to state-run courts and democratic institutions.

The Ritual of Libations for the Dead

Ancient Greek culture was one of many cultures that used libations, or the ritual pouring of liquids, as a religious rite. Libations honored both dead loved ones and the gods. The liquid used for libations was usually wine and water. Honey, oil, and milk could also be added.

Greek libations fell into two categories: spondai and choai (also spelled choe). Spondai were smaller, controlled pourings of liquid to honor the Olympian gods. Families might pour spondai daily, and before meals, as part of their religious practice. A small jug or cup was used for spondai. Choai were burial rites, libations specifically for the dead and the gods of the underworld. In the choai ritual, libation bearers emptied a large vessel directly into a pit dug for this purpose near the grave. Women traditionally visited grave sites for this practice, bringing libations and offerings of food. Choai rituals had rules about how to verbally address the gods and the dead being honored, including in what order the gods should be named.

The libations Electra and the Chorus offer in The Libation Bearers are choai. The Greek name for the play is Choephoroi (or The Choephoroi), including the term choai (or choe) and signifying to a Greek audience the importance of the funerary libation ritual to the play. Both Electra and the Chorus struggle to find the right words to speak to complete the ritual properly because they're both honoring the dead and appealing for justice.

Electra and Orestes

Although Aeschylus's dramatization of the Oresteia saga is the most well known, his is one of many versions of the Greek myth. Each retelling treats the characters differently, particularly the sibling duo of Orestes and Electra, two characters whose actions and growth are pivotal to the story.

Aeschylus gives Electra a limited role in the Oresteia, focusing instead on Orestes and Clytaemnestra. Other accounts of the Argive royal family explore Orestes and Electra in more detail. In one telling, the siblings learn Clytaemnestra plans to kill Orestes, the next heir to Agamemnon's crown, Electra helps Orestes escape from Argos to the nearby town of Phocis. For years Electra sends Orestes messages reminding him to avenge his father's death. Sometime after Orestes's return, Electra marries Orestes's friend Pylades.

Two other Greek tragedians tackled the story of Orestes and Electra's revenge quest—Sophocles in his play Electra and Euripides in his plays Electra and Orestes. In all three versions of the story, Electra provides moral support for the avenger Orestes. But in the plays of Sophocles and Euripides, Electra's role in the matricide is much more direct.

In Sophocles's Electra (410 BCE), the two siblings reunite after Electra mourns over an urn she believes holds her brother's ashes. The play shows the story of The Libation Bearers from Electra's point of view, dramatizing her grief and journey to revenge, although Orestes ultimately completes the murders. Sophocles includes a role for Orestes and Electra's sister Chrysothemis, a character not mentioned in Aeschylus's Oresteia.

Euripides's Electra (418 BCE) highlights Electra's relationship with and hatred of Clytaemnestra. In Euripides's version, a passionate and volatile Electra is the primary agent in the murder, while Orestes is more reluctant. Euripides's follow-up play Orestes (408 BCE) shows the siblings (along with Orestes's friend Pylades) standing trial for Clytaemnestra's murder. They are condemned to execution, but the god Apollo exonerates them.

Contemporary playwrights have adapted the family drama of the Atreidae, or royal family of Argos, for different eras. Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) sets the tale in 19th-century New England. T.S. Eliot's The Family Reunion (1939) is also inspired by the shifting family loyalties of the Oresteia. In the field of psychology, the term "Electra complex," a term for a woman with a strong, possibly romantic attachment to her father, comes from Electra's murder of her mother. It's the female counterpart to the more famous Oedipus complex, named for Oedipus, another character from Greek tragedy who killed his father and married his mother.

Structure of Greek Tragedy

Actors performed the Oresteia at a Greek theater festival called the Great Dionysia, a weeklong playwriting competition honoring Dionysus, the Greek god of fertility and wine. Each tragic poet who competed would write and produce three plays on a single theme. Thousands of audience members would watch the entire trilogy of plays in one day.

The performance took place in the orchestra area of the stage. Actors entered and exited from the skene, or backstage area, usually a building or tent. Only three actors performed non-chorus roles, switching costumes and masks as needed to play different parts. Aeschylus was the first playwright to introduce a second actor to the stage, increasing possibilities for dialogue. Aeschylus's plays focused more heavily on plot and less heavily on the chorus than other plays in his era.

Actors couldn't show violence onstage; the two murder scenes in The Libation Bearers take place backstage, out of sight of the audience. The onstage action of the play's second half is set in front of the royal palace of Argos, with characters entering and exiting from palace doors, establishing the palace as a significant setting.

Greek tragedies are organized into distinct parts:

  • First the Prologos, or prologue, introduces the play's topic with an opening scene.
  • Next the chorus sings the Parodos, or entrance ode.
  • A number of Episodes (three to five, usually) follow. In each episode one or two actors interact with the chorus. Although Aeschylus increased the speaking parts in his dramas, he was still limited by the conventions of the genre to three speaking actors onstage at any one time.
  • After each episode the chorus presents a Stasimon, or stationary song. Stasima comment on or react to the episode's events. They may also indicate the views of the playwright.
  • The final act is the Exodos, or exit ode, in which the chorus reacts to the play's outcome. The Exodos in The Libation Bearers features Orestes in a dialogue with the chorus. Because the play is part of a trilogy, The Libation Bearers' Exodos ends on a note of uncertainty and primes the audience for the final play in the Oresteia.

Dramas combined elements of music and dance. The chorus, and many of the actors, sang their lines. The Libation Bearers includes a kommos, or funeral song, for Agamemnon sung by the chorus, Orestes, and Electra.

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